An bridged version of this article was published in Spring 2017 issue of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) “Australian Mosaic” magazine.
Organ and tissue donation saves lives. In fact one donor can save the lives of up to 10 people regardless of age, background or culture. While the majority of Australians are willing to register on the Australian Organ Donor Register (AODR), only around 1% of people who die in hospital do so under the specific circumstances necessary to be a potential organ donor.
In Australia, the family of every organ and tissue donor will be asked to confirm their loved one’s donation decision. When families have discussed, and are aware of, the donation decision of their loved ones, they are much more likely to say yes to donation. However, the Organ and Tissue Authority (OTA) documents 61% of Australians do not know or are unsure of the donation decision of their loved ones.
For people who come from diverse cultural or religious backgrounds, registering to become an organ and tissue donor may not be an easy decision. Many people are unaware of the position that their religion has about organ and tissue donation, or may feel that their cultural beliefs do not allow it. Where a person of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background has made a decision to register as an organ donor, it is highly likely that they have not discussed this with their family as it can be a difficult and challenging conversation. Potentially, cultural attitudes and taboos surrounding death may also compound matters as death and dying are not spoken about openly in many cultures.
Our Nation of Nations
Australia is a diverse society with nearly half (49 per cent) of Australians born overseas or with one or both parents born overseas and over 300 languages spoken.
According to the 2016 ABS census, Australia now has almost one third of the population born in another country with nearly one in five arriving since the start of 2012. While England and New Zealand are the most common countries of birth after Australia, China and India are now the largest source countries with the proportion of people born in China and India increasing since the 2011 census by more than 2% of the total population.
For those who speak a language other than English at home, the top languages according to 2016 census are Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Tagalog, Hindi, Spanish and Punjabi.
For many arrivals to Australia’s shores, they will have had little or no exposure or knowledge about organ and tissue donation. Other countries also have different systems and protocols surrounding organ and tissue donation compared to those in Australia. People may bring these views, understandings and experiences to bear when considering whether to register as an organ donor.
In light of these different understandings, it is important that our culturally and religiously diverse communities are actively engaged in the discussion about organ and tissue donation in Australia. Not only will it facilitate better understanding about the Australian systems, processes and protections, this conversation will also help address misconceptions and encourage an increase in registrations on the AODR by our communities.
What Our Diverse Faiths Have to Say about Organ and Tissue Donation
Most religions support organ and tissue donation and see it as an act of merit, charity, virtue, divine ordinance, and selfless giving that helps to preserve the sanctity of life.
Religious leaders from the Buddhist, Catholic (including Maronite), Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish faiths in Australia are highly supportive of organ and tissue donation and have developed position statements, encyclicals, fatwas or rulings. These can be found at: http://www.donatelife.gov.au/position-statements.
Many people of faith are often under the impression that their religion is against organ donation. Still others may not be aware of their faith’s position on this issue. The statements on the DonateLife website, deliver clarity and comfort that donation is permissible and provide important guidance in helping people make a positive decision to register on the AODR.
People of faith may also be concerned that their funeral and burial customs may not be observed during the process of organ donation. Rest assured, hospital staff work very hard to ensure people’s wishes, beliefs and religious practices are respected and accommodated. This includes treating the donor body with respect and dignity, including not altering the physical appearance, so that family members will be able to view the body and have an open casket funeral if desired.
Other Concerns and Misconceptions
There are many other concerns, myths and misconceptions people may have which prevents them from considering registering to become an organ donor.
Some people are not sure if they are registered or not. It is easy enough to check or update details by going to the AODR at www.donorregister.gov.au. Don’t forget that in Australia the family will always be asked to confirm the donation decision of their loved ones before donation proceeds. It is important to have the discussion with family members about your decision to register as an organ donor. http://www.donatelife.gov.au/sites/default/files/Discuss%20Fact%20Sheet%20-%20Feb%202017.pdf offers some ideas on how to have the conversation.
Age and health are common reasons people may cite as to why they do not register. While age and medical history will be considered, there is a very good chance that some organs and tissue will be suitable. It is important therefore not to assume that a person may be too young, too old or too unhealthy. The medical team can assist in this decision.
Another common concern is that once registered, doctors will not work as hard to save the life of a registered organ donor. The first responsibility of medical staff is to the patient and they will do everything possible to save a person’s life. Organ donation will only be considered after all efforts to save a person’s life have failed and death has been declared.
Some people worry that their organs will be used for research or that there are financial incentives for people to become donors. In Australia donated organs will never be used for research unless explicit written permission is given by the family. There are also no financial incentives for organ and tissue donation in Australia as our laws are grounded in ethical concerns to protect against coercion and exploitation. The OTA also has a fact sheet about donation myths at http://www.donatelife.gov.au/sites/default/files/Fact%20Sheet%20-%20Donation%20Myths%20-%20Aug%202016.pdf
How to Help Communities Have the Conversation
When deciding to register to become an organ donor, it is important to discover the facts around donation, decide to register and then have the discussion with the family. Families that are prepared for their loved one’s donation decision are more likely to uphold that decision.
The role of community leaders and organisations in helping their community members make the decision to register is vitally important and could help save lives.
Organ donation saves lives so get involved. Go to www.donatelife.gov.au